IN “THE STEALTH Fight Against Stupidity,” which appeared here at The Weeklings on Friday, Janet Steen laments the anti-intellectual trend in modern American culture (or “culture,” as it were, with the derisive scare quotes).
She argues that “we have to take certain measures to fight against idiocy and ignorance, to push back against the pull of bad mass culture (as opposed to good mass culture, of which there is, granted, quite a lot).”
I couldn’t agree more.
While I have a special place in my heart for Us Weekly—what really went on with John Travolta and those masseurs, who Kim Kardashian is boinking this week, how Jessica Simpson is losing the baby weight, and so forth; celebrity gossip, basically—my threshold for mindless crap is low. When I saw Independence Day, a blockbuster many moviegoers enjoyed, I felt like I’d been violated. I was literally sick to my stomach. It was the anti-Stendhal Effect. The Da Vinci Code, same deal. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why any sentient human being over the age of, say, fourteen could derive any pleasure, even Mystery Science 3000-style pleasure, from those Twilight movies. They fail even as camp.
Things have only gotten worse. This summer’s biggest blockbuster, The Avengers, is profoundly mediocre—a least-common-denominator movie if ever there was one: a few fun moments interspersed with long stretches of yawn-inducing exposition and Sam Jackson in an eyepatch. The subtitle should be: A Waste of Robert Downey, Jr. Compared to this box office behemoth, Titanic—which failed to impress me in 1997—feels like Shakespeare.
The culture is clearly being dumbed down. Which begs the question: is Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby—excuse me, The Great Gatsby In 3D; those giant eyes on the billboard will come right at us, I suppose—the surest sign yet that our civilization is in freefall? And will we even get to see it, as it will be released on Christmas—three days after the Mayans say the world will end?
In Idiocracy (2006), Mike Judge’s quiet masterpiece, he imagines a future in which all the smart people stop breeding, and the dopes inherit the earth. In this dystopian nightmare, the winner of multiple Academy Awards (“including best screenplay!”) is a movie titled Ass, which comprises two hours of footage of a human ass. The most popular show on TV is called Ouch! My Balls! and consists entirely of stupid men being kicked in the groin. (Ouch! My Balls! is now an actual show on Comedy Central, although its title has been changed to Tosh 2.0). Low comedy distills to fart jokes and testicular abuse. This, Judge seems to be saying, is what we have to look forward to.
Smart comedies used to be the norm: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Mel Brooks’s History of the World. There were screwball plots. There was witty banter. There was intelligence even to the slapstick. But comedies, too, have fallen pray to this slow decline into stupidity. We don’t get Sleepers or Tootsie anymore. We get Meet the Fockers and Jack & Jill.
Why is this? Idiocracy is a very smart film, but it grossed less than half a million dollars—pennies under the sofa. Meet the Fockers, meanwhile, made a hundred times more in its opening weekend than Idiocracy grossed during its entire (short) theatrical release.
The morons have won.
Judge, ironically, is partly to blame for this. It was his MTV show about chortling cartoon dipshits that ushered in what I’ll term, for lack of a better word, dumb comedy. To be clear: while Beavis and Butthead were dumb, Beavis and Butthead was anything but. Like Dolly Parton’s quip about it costing a lot of money to look so cheap, it takes a comic genius to do stupid smartly, and Judge is clearly that.
Unfortunately, dumb comedy became a trend, something writers aspired to (if that’s the right word). When you try to make Some Like It Hot and fail, you get a not-as-smart-but-still-decent comedy. When you try and make Beavis and Butthead and fail, you get something unwatchably awful. The margin of error is as thin as Butthead’s neck.
To be fair, there are other forces at play here. A smart comedy full of witty banter won’t play well in, say, Indonesia. Too many subtitles. But Will Smith mugging at the camera and uttering guttural catchphrases transcends language. (So, too, Ouch! My Balls! and Ass.) By appealing to the least common denominator, by relying on visual effects and physical comedy, comedies expand their market dramatically. I remember watching the trailer for Jack & Jill and thinking, “Why would anyone want to see this?” No sooner had that thought bubble formed than my seven-year-old son began guffawing. “That’s funny!” he said. I don’t know that he’d feel the same way about Some Like It Hot.
Also, the big studios have determined that the surest bet at the box office is to make a movie about a subject that already has a platform. Everyone knows the Transformers, and the Avengers, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and “You sunk my battleship!” Audiences are more likely to pay to watch the cinematic devil they know, even if they suspect it will suck, than something less familiar—like, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter books. (My son’s response, when I told him I’d seen that movie: “Is that about Jimmy Carter?”).
Eventually, one hopes, they will run out of board games, Mattel action figures, and canonized comic books, and once again invest in some R&D. Until then, take heart: we have three more seasons of Don Draper and Roger Sterling. Better mad men than dumb ones.